As a retro computer hobbyist, former bookseller, and landlord, I’ve had to deal with stickers a lot. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible to remove sticker residue from almost anything. Even paper. Yes, even paper. I’ve removed stickers from inside books and left the page completely undamaged. Here’s how.
Removing sticker residue often requires use of several different techniques including heat and chemicals. My favorite is rubber cement thinner, as it will even remove sticker residue from paper, but different surfaces require different options.
I generally have better luck with all of these techniques if the sticker is still intact. But if someone already tried to peel off the sticker and all that’s left is residue and bits of paper that’s OK. These techniques still work great, it just might take a little bit longer.
I generally work my way through the following steps in order.
Removing sticker residue with heat
Most adhesives respond well to heat. Heat tends to loosen it up and sometimes, if everything goes well, the residue just rubs off easily. But if nothing else, alternating heat and other means will remove the sticker residue more quickly.
I prefer to use a hair dryer, as it emits a fair bit of heat without being too dangerous. A heat gun also works, but depending on the surface, a heat gun could damage it. A hair dryer, even on its high setting, probably won’t.
Better living through chemistry, sticker residue edition
Once you’ve weakened the adhesive, it’s time to bring in the chemicals. There are at least four I’ve used that work very well, but not all of them are appropriate for every surface, and some are cheaper than others. I’ll list them in my order of preference, and include what they work well on.
Always test in an inconspicuous area first just in case you’re working with something I never have, but I’ve had great success with all of these methods.
Rubber cement thinner
My favorite is rubber cement thinner, specifically the Bestine brand, but the brand name may vary in your country. Rubber cement thinner is the most expensive option, but it works on anything, including cardboard and paper. Yes, I have removed sticker residue from cardboard and paper, even non-glossy surfaces, without a trace and without damaging the printing on it. Just drop a bit of the thinner onto the adhesive, let it soak in, let it dry, and then it will rub, scrape, peel or flake off without a fight. If any of the remaining residue puts up any kind of a fight, just repeat.
Lighter fluid is cheaper than rubber cement thinner and almost as good. I don’t think it works as fast and I’m a little less confident about it not affecting printing, but I haven’t had much in the way of problems with it. Just squirt some lighter fluid on, let it dry, and then it will rub, scrape, peel or flake off without a fight. Repeat if it fights you at all.
I put mineral spirits in the same category as lighter fluid. It removes adhesives readily from most surfaces and dries quickly. The packaging is just less convenient. But if you have some mineral spirits on hand, dip a cotton swab in it, then apply it to the sticker, let it soak in and dry, then try to peel off the sticker. If it fights you, repeat.
Goo Gone is very effective at removing sticker residue on any hard, nonporous surface. It also generally works well on coated surfaces, like high-gloss cardboard. Goo Gone can stain, so be careful, and it will remove printing on matte surfaces. It works, and it’s something you’re likely to have around, it’s just not as universal as the others. Just be ready for a fair bit of scraping after squirting it on and letting it soak in.
Last and least, there’s old-fashioned WD-40. The stuff your dad or grandpa used. Only use it on hard, nonporous surfaces, but it works. I used it to clean a bunch of stickers off a kitchen stove. Squirt some on, let it soak in for a good 30 minutes, then scrape.
Finally, scraping off sticker residue
Most people recommend scraping off sticker residue, with either a metal or a plastic blade. A plastic blade is less likely to damage anything, but I’m still reluctant to use either type of blade on a fragile surface like a book cover or a box. On hard surfaces it’s fine. If the sticker or residue doesn’t peel off on its own, gently scrape it away, adding more chemical if needed. Just get under an edge, work under the edge slowly and gently, then peel. Go back and repeat any and all steps as necessary, and remember, with this, you can’t go too slow.
When not to remove
I don’t always remove stickers. For example, I have an old Commodore disk drive with a Kmart price tag on it. It’s part of its history, so I left it. I know how to remove price tags from old toy packaging, but if it’s the tag from the store where it originally came from, I leave it. I’ll remove old tape and labels that someone might have come back and added later, but I do like having stickers from the original retailer on it. As long as they’re still in good shape, I think they add character.